President wins early spin battle

After months of playing defense, Democrats are now dominating the message war on healthcare reform.

Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, have put Republicans on their heels in the crucial first few days after Congress passed an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system.

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While Obama on Wednesday welcomed a fight with Republicans on healthcare, GOP officials were still trying to come up with a consistent counterattack.

As some Republicans vow to repeal the healthcare law, others note that scrapping it is highly unlikely. Even if congressional Republicans defy the odds and win both the House and Senate this fall, Obama will be able to veto any repeal legislation.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has come up with a more nuanced position, asserting the GOP would not fund the implementation of the law.

Not all Republicans are vowing to revoke the law. Senate hopeful Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) this week said, “While this president is in office, repealing this full law is not realistic and not the best use of our efforts.”

Republicans, strategists say, have a lot of time to recover from the Democrats’ success is passing the health bill. But they are struggling to fight back while Obama takes the first of many victory laps.

The president and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have launched a series of opening salvos, ranging from radio and television ads to Obama’s trip to Iowa on Thursday.

Even though the dust will take months to settle over the long and vitriolic debate, there is a sense that Republicans peaked too early in the 2010 cycle, with the high point being Scott Brown’s Senate win in Massachusetts.

Another reason Republicans are getting pummeled in the message war is that many of them are still stunned the bill has become law.

Congressional Republicans last Sunday afternoon had high hopes that Democrats would fall short in getting the votes in the House, according to a Republican legislator speaking on background.

When the bill passed, Republicans were caught flat-footed.

Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a professor at Rutgers University, said GOP leaders acted all along as if they were going to be on the winning side.

Baker and other political observers warned that Republicans, if they continue to push for repealing the bill, will risk appearing as obstructionists as Obama and congressional Democrats work to get things done.

Democrats clearly are relishing the repeal debate. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is keeping track of Senate GOP candidates who are calling for repeal of the health law. The title of the DSCC’s webpage reads, “GOP: Repeal it!”

The fact that Democrats are spreading the GOP’s message is one of many problems Republicans are facing.

Furthermore, there are some popular benefits of the new law that will go into effect this year, such as a $250 rebate for senior citizens who fall into the so-called Medicare drug doughnut hole.

Meanwhile, most of the heavy lifting in implementing the law, which usually attracts negative headlines, won’t happen until after the next presidential election.

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Another House Republican who requested anonymity suggested earlier this week that he is skeptical of the repeal message, saying, “I feel like it’s a trap.”

The GOP lawmaker noted that members of the conference would be listening to their constituents over recess.

Democrats say Republicans put everything they had into torpedoing the bill.

“They unleashed everything they had right off the blocks,” said one top Democratic strategist close to the Obama White House. “[Republicans] showed no discipline and had no real strategy in place.”

From “death panels” to abortion to illegal immigration, Republicans and vocal conservative activists sought to “muddy the debate with a research dump,” the strategist said, and now they suffer a credibility gap moving forward.

“The problem is this has become a one-string fiddle for them, and it’s a monotonous tune,” Baker said.

Obama and his White House team were gleeful this week as they pointed to some Republicans wavering in their opposition to reform.

The president on Thursday dared repeal-minded Republicans who want to run against healthcare to “go for it.”

White House aides, many of whom were blamed when health reform stalled, have basked in victory this week.

One top administration official pointed out that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a leading critic of healthcare reform, touted the bill’s provisions on tax-exempt hospitals.

White House officials believe the healthcare reform law will mirror the stimulus debate, when some Republicans took credit for a bill they opposed.

“As the midterm elections approach, Democrats will be talking about their historic success in expanding access to healthcare, lowering costs for small businesses, cutting taxes for middle-class families and stopping insurance companies from discriminating against people who get sick,” the administration official said. “Republicans’ main message seems to be that they want to repeal all of that. This vigorous debate will take place in the months ahead all across the country, and we’re looking forward to it.”

Republicans and political analysts, however, said Democrats would be foolish to see healthcare as too large a feather in their caps for the midterms.

“This isn’t the beginning of a Democratic turnaround yet,” said David Wasserman, a political analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “Passing of healthcare is more likely to slow Republicans’ momentum than reverse it.”

Republican strategist Kevin Madden agreed that Democrats still face an uphill battle ahead of November.

“I think the next 90 days will tell us a lot about whether Democrats have arrested their free-fall,” Madden said, comparing the euphoria Democrats are now experiencing to a “sugar high.”

He added, “But I think Democrats are kidding themselves if they think a bill-signing will solve all their problems.”

Madden pointed to a number of issues Republicans are howling about on Capitol Hill, ranging from government spending to unemployment to U.S. relations with Israel, as areas where the public still eyes the White House and Democrats either warily or angrily.

In those areas, Madden said Republicans have “consistently and methodically” aligned themselves with public anger toward Washington and Democrats.

“Don’t judge us by the last four days,” Madden said. “Judge us by the last year.”

Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein also warned that Democrats are not out of the woods yet, even on healthcare.

“Now that the debate is over, the story is the minutiae, and you can bet the GOP oppo guys are going to pick this thing apart,” Gerstein said.

Whatever setbacks Republicans might be facing in the wake of losing the healthcare battle, GOP confidence for November is still high.

As one top Republican Senate aide put it: “Democrats are gonna get crushed in the fall.”


Molly K. Hooper contributed to this article.